Michelle Chapman
and Ken Sweet

NEW YORK: NASA pays it billions. Its rockets sport mythical names like Minotaur and Pegasus. And its $2 billion deal to resupply the International Space Station had gone well — until this week.

Aerospace company Orbital Sciences Corp. suffered a big failure late Tuesday when one of its unmanned rockets bound for the station exploded moments after liftoff. That rocket was Orbital’s newest model, Antares, which had its first mission in 2013.

The launch pad failure is a setback for a company with a 30-year history in private spaceflight, including 42 successful missions on its Pegasus small-payload rockets since 1990. The explosion also comes at a delicate time for the company, which is closing a $5 billion merger with defense contractor ATK.

The company’s launch pad and other facilities near a Virginia site were spared major damage, based on a preliminary analysis, Orbital executives said Wednesday. They also believe the rocket, its cargo, as well as any damage to the site will be covered by insurance.

For investors, though, the explosion raises concerns. The failure, wrote Jefferies analyst Howard Rubel, “may hamper, but not prevent, Orbital from signing contracts with additional customers for Antares.”

The company makes rockets and satellites for commercial, military and government use. Its Pegasus and Minotaur space launch vehicles put satellites into orbit. Development of the Antares rocket was completed last year. Orbital has a contract with Boeing to make boosters for missile defense.

Orbital Sciences, whose major customers are the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA, had planned eight Antares launches to resupply the International Space Station through 2016 under a $1.9 billion contract.

That accounted for nearly a quarter of its revenue last year and 83 percent of the company’s 2013 revenue derived from the U.S. government.

Following the disaster, the company’s stock fell $5.10, or 17 percent, to $25.27 on Wednesday. It’s up 8.5 percent this year. For 2013, Orbital Sciences reported net income of $68.4 million, or $1.13 per share, on revenue of $1.37 billion.

Orbital CEO and Chairman David Thompson told investors it was “too soon” to see how the explosion might affect future missions. The company’s next mission was scheduled for April.

Orbital Sciences’ most high-profile competitor in private spaceflight is Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., commonly called SpaceX. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon are all major competitors in some of its business lines.

Despite the rocket failure, CEO Thompson believes Orbital’s merger with ATK won’t be affected. The shareholder vote on the deal is still scheduled for Dec. 9.